Hello once again, movie lovers! Long time no see.
As you know, my past blogs have focused on one specific movie, but I felt like changing things up this time around. What with Oscars being just around the corner (as in, tonight), and 2008 quickly fading from memory, I figured I’d do a look back on the year that was. To do that, I’ll be presenting my list of the 10 best films of the year, plus listing some honorable mentions, interspersed with some commentary about the Oscars.
Also I guess this is as good a time as any to note that this entry will only cover #10 to #6. I have typed up my entire list, but including honorable mentions (and my all-too-frequent digressions), it got to be a tad (by which I mean “a ton”) on the lengthy side. It seemed more than a little cruel to inflict the entire thing on you all at once. So, in the interest of not burying you all under an avalanche of text, I’ve elected to break my list up into multiple entries. Originally I planned to space the entries out over a few days, but the Oscars really are looming large, and since I’m offering some predictions about the proceedings, waiting seems foolish. Therefore, all three entries will be up today.
I’ve tried to go in ascending order (as in, the closer I get to #1, the better the movie). In practice, this proved to be very difficult. There’s not much separating a lot of these movies. Nevertheless, without further ado, the 10 best movies of 2008 are:
10. WALL-E – This just barely squeaks in, and I think that says something about the quality of movies released this year. I would’ve liked to have seen this one a little higher up on my list, but some things about it just didn’t work for me. Part of it has to do with expectations. I go into animated movies expecting fun, perhaps some tugging of the heartstrings, and just generally to be entertained. WALL-E does all of those things, but parts of it just feel a little sparse. There’s very little dialogue, which is hard to swallow for me; I love snappy dialogue. And it’s a bit slow to get moving.
Now in my defence, I have to point out that I don’t have an issue with all movies with little dialogue (i.e. 2001: A Space Odyssey). And I don’t have a problem with all movies that move slowly (i.e. Gerry). But I just didn’t picture this movie being that way, and as I said earlier my expectations threw me off, which affected my enjoyment.
I do have to give this movie big time credit for what it does achieve. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that the main characters are a pair of robots: WALL-E and EVE. And 99% of their dialogue consists of various ways of saying either their own names, or each other’s names – with concern, with exasperation, with conviction, with annoyance, maybe even with love. The rest is all conveyed through their animated gestures and expressions. And somehow it (mostly) works. That alone makes this worth seeing.
As a brief addendum, this movie is going to win best animated feature. You may quote me on that. Despite this, WALL-E was not my favourite animated movie of the year. The thing about it is that, ultimately, I respected this film more than I enjoyed it. I still enjoyed it, just not in the way I’m used to.
9. The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button – It almost causes me physical pain to put this movie this low on my list. I wanted to love it so badly. David Fincher is one of my favourite directors. He was behind Fight Club and Se7en, two of my absolute favourites of all time. And there are some parts of this that I really did like a lot. But on the whole, it unfortunately had some pretty big problems.
For starters, the end of the movie is a bit of a mess. Our dear Mr. Button seems to spend a long time being old, but then he gets young really fast, and then it’s over. Brad Pitt is good but not great in the title role. It’s a decent performance, but a bit one-note. There’s just not much range of emotion.
On the other hand, I really liked the way the main female character was handled. She was played by (if I remember right) three actresses over the course of the movie, with the bulk of the heavy lifting of course being done by Cate Blanchett (it’s an absolute crime that she’s not nominated for best actress, her performance really elevates the movie).
The supporting cast is excellent too (this is a theme that will come up many times on my list), particularly Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin’s mother. She’s a strong contender for best supporting actress.
The movie is also a visual feast. Fincher, together with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, has created a beautiful world.
There’s nothing really terribly wrong with the movie, but it was still a disappointment, perhaps again due to my high expectations. For one thing, there just seemed to be a lot of unnecessary material. For example, the Katrina tie-in didn’t work for me at all. The screenplay was based on an original short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which ran something like 60 pages. To expand that story into a movie that’s nearly 3 hours in length doesn’t really make sense to me. Go back and watch Forrest Gump instead (or maybe do it after you’ve watched this). Both movies have the same screenwriter, and oddly similar stories, but Forrest Gump is the better of the two, in my opinion.
8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona – I just got the chance to watch this very recently, so it’s quite fresh on my mind. Before I comment further, I feel I should confess something. My film education is criminally lacking as far as Woody Allen’s movies are concerned. I have seen exactly two of his movies (Match Point, and this one). Yep, no Annie Hall, no Manhattan, no Crimes and Misdemeanors. As someone who purports to be a lover of film, I’m genuinely ashamed to say it. On the bright side though, I loved Match Point, and I enjoyed this film quite a bit as well.
This movie features a number of good performances. Javier Bardem trades in his freaky haircut and stun gun from last year’s No Country For Old Men to become Juan Antonio Gonzalo, a Spanish tortured artist/macho guy/womanizer. His life revolves around three women: his unhinged ex-wife, brilliantly played by Penelope Cruz, and pair of tourists he’s attempting to seduce. The first of these tourists is Vicky, played by Rebecca Hall. She’s an engaged woman on vacation with her impulsive, single friend Cristina, played by Scarlett Johansson. As you may have guessed, Cristina is the other woman that Gonzalo is eyeing.
All four of the main actors are very good. Although she’s onscreen for less time than the others, Cruz makes up for it by turning in the movie’s best performance (which earned her a nomination for best supporting actress). She rants and raves with equal fluency and emotion in Spanish and in English, causing all kinds of trouble for the other three. For his part, Bardem performs with the cockiness turned up to 11, and it’s fun to watch.
If I had one issue, it was that Hall and Johansson play such polar opposites that it’s tough to believe they would ever be friends in real life. That said, the performances are good. Rebecca Hall ditches the posh British accent she employed in Frost/Nixon, and plays a woman who seemingly has her future all planned out. Emphasis on “seemingly”. I think it’s a good sign that after seeing her play both an American and a Brit, I didn’t know which of her accents was the real one (turns out she was born in London).
As for Scarlett Johansson… She seems to have something of a bad reputation, and I can’t say I understand why that’s so. I’m not exactly her biggest fan, but I have liked her in everything I’ve seen her in. She starred in the aforementioned Match Point, and her performances in both that movie and this one are fine.
Overall, some of Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s plot turns seemed a bit forced (there’s some serious deus ex machina going on in the latter half of the film), but the performances pull you in, and the voice over narration moves things along at a brisk pace, so there’s not much time to get caught up in such details. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
7. Doubt – Now we’re getting into the really good stuff. Like with Frost/Nixon, this is another movie based on a play, and although the action here is far less dynamic than it was in that movie, I preferred Doubt. There’s a heavy focus on the dialogue, which deals with moral dilemmas, guilt and other things Catholic (wait, is there anything else to Catholicism aside from moral dilemmas and guilt?).
Doubt abounds with fantastic acting performances. Nominations are flying left right and center here, as Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis and Amy Adams all gave Oscar-nominated performances. How will these nominated performers fare? Well, as much as I liked Hoffman, he doesn’t hold a candle to Heath Ledger. It’s actually a bit odd to me that Hoffman is nominated as a supporting actor in the first place. He has a pretty sizeable part, and that basically makes him the male lead. So why not put him in for best actor?
As for the rest? Well, Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep; it seems like she’s nominated every other year, and this one is well-deserved. That leaves Davis and Adams battling it out for best supporting actress. Davis gives one of the best performances of the year despite her short screen time. And Adams is strong too, I can’t fault her performance at all. More on Davis and Adams a little later.
6. Iron Man – Gasp! A comic book movie! (Spoiler alert: there will be more than one on this list). Say what you will about the comic book movie genre, but it has produced some authentically great films. This is one of them. Unquestionably, this movie’s biggest asset is Robert Downey Jr. The man is a wonderful actor, and he seemed to be having a lot of fun making this film. And I had a lot of fun watching it. Yet again, the supporting cast is great. Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, and Terrence Howard (who apparently won’t be back for the sequel, boo) all add to the proceedings.
Iron Man is one of those sort of second-tier comic book heroes. To be honest, I’d never even heard of him until this movie came out. Sometimes using lesser-known comic books as source material can be problematic. I mean, we could have ended up with another pile of dreck like Daredevil or Ghost Rider. But thank goodness, that’s not the case here. Instead we got a great, fun piece of entertainment.